When I wrote about ‘Why this Kolaveri Di’ back in January, its wave of popularity was already cresting. And yet, even now, the song reverberates around India, from bungalow to basti, spawning imitations, knock-offs and techno-remixes. (And it still racks up views on YouTube – 53 million and counting.) On two consecutive days in Pune, I heard the same drum and bass-heavy remix, once in the air-conditioned environs of Café Coffee Day, then again at the raucous, joyous Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations at Pune Station.
But this column isn’t about the dulcet tones of Dhanush, and the heavily choreographed casualness of ‘Kolaveri’. When ‘Kolaveri’ became a YouTube sensation, it eclipsed another Tamil musical powerhouse: one Wilbur Sargunaraj, who the Times of India had branded “India’s first YouTube star.” Sargunaraj made it big with the YouTube hit ‘Love Marriage’, a deliriously low-fi video shot in rural Tamil Nadu, with Sargunaraj – dressed in his signature black pants, white shirt, black tie and sunglasses – dancing enthusiastically, if awkwardly, with four women dressed in traditional saris. Th e beats are cheesy and retro, the visual eff ects ridiculously amateurish, the lyrics simplistic and repetitive (“Mommy, Daddy, I want a love marriage”), and yet the song is charming and catchy, with the dancers clearly enjoying themselves. While ‘Kolaveri’ and ‘Love Marriage’ share their Tamil pedigree and their enthusiastic embrace of so-called “low” culture, stylistically they are poles apart: one slickly produced, the other gloriously slapdash.
But the production of ‘Love Marriage’ seems intentionally bad, winking at its own bizarreness. It evokes the reaction, “This can’t possibly be real… Can it?” Some Internet sleuthing reveals that, despite Wilbur’s protestations to the contrary, Wilbur is not Wilbur at all, but rather a Canadian-born, Indianraised fellow named Paul Benjamin. From my laptop explorations, I can’t prove this 100%, but the evidence is quite strong. A photo from ‘Drums, Etc.’ magazine has both Wilbur and Paul Benjamin photoshopped together, and the resemblance is striking. More evidence: both Benjamin and Sargunaraj have written and performed (identical) songs called ‘Please Check My Blog’. Indeed, this song, which appears on Benjamin’s album ‘Feel this Rhythm’, seems to be the origin of the Wilbur persona, and appears on his debut CD as well.
Even in this age of ubiquitous cyberstalking, I feel a bit guilty prying into the life of Wilbur’s Canadian counterpart, but Benjamin clearly knows that fans are seeking out his online presence, and he has done all he can to minimize it. As Benjamin’s online persona shrinks (his Bandcamp page has been deleted, his personal website is skeletal), Wilbur’s grows and grows, with his own site (wilbur. asia), Facebook page, twitter feed, and, of course, YouTube account. But traces of Benjamin’s online life remain. He is an accomplished drummer (as is Wilbur, surprise, surprise!) with extensive training in many percussion styles, including Carnatic and jazz. He is passionate about advocating for the Rwandan people, and has visited the country on multiple occasions to raise awareness, encourage cultural understanding, and promote musical exchange.
“Wilbur/Benjamin’s adoption of an exaggerated south Indian persona (strongly accented English, with constant use of the phrase “First Class!” and frequent slips into Tamil) similarly complicates his project of good natured, unironic cultural exchange. Wilbur’s stated goal as a ‘Simple Superstar’ is “to make the common extraordinary.”
This penchant for cross-cultural exchange is also evident in his alterego, Wilbur’s body of work. Besides his ‘Hot Hits’ like ‘Love Marriage’ and the equally infectious ‘Chicken 65’, he has produced a series of ‘Supercall Solutions’ videos – his nod to the call centre phenomenon – where he teaches his viewers important skills from different cultures, including how to tie a lungi, how to order a burger at a drive-through, how to wakeboard, how to drive a TVS scooter, and even how to perform arthroscopic knee surgery. While comedy’s most famous alteregos – including Andy Kaufman’s Tony Clift on and Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, Bruno and Ali G – have been used to antagonize, ridicule and provoke audiences, Wilbur is the gentler type, smiling and joking without pretension or condescension as he interacts with Tamilian farmers, Japanese tourists, and Rwandan activists.
Wilbur/Benjamin’s genuine enthusiasm for cultural exchange, though, clashes with his camp aesthetic. First theorised by infl uential essayist Susan Sontag in her 1964 work ‘Notes on “Camp’”, the camp aesthetic embraces the ridiculous and the exaggerated, reveling in the concept of so-bad-it’s-good. This type of ironic enjoyment remains widespread, especially in hipster culture. Wilbur fits this profi le, to some extent: his songs and videos are lo-fi to the point of ridiculousness, and his retro logos (bright pink colours, old cassette tapes) point to a hipster sensibility. His style recalls the intentionally bad hilarity of another Canadian Internet star, Jon Lajoie, or the current American kings of camp, Tim and Eric. For these artists, the camp style matches the deeply ironic content of their work. For Wilbur, though, there is a mismatch; while his mode of presentation triggers the audience to expect ironic detachment and postmodern distancing, instead we find sincerity and cheer.Wilbur/Benjamin’s adoption of an exaggerated south Indian persona (strongly accented English, with constant use of the phrase “First Class!” and frequent slips into Tamil) similarly complicates his project of goodnatured, unironic cultural exchange. Wilbur’s stated goal as a ‘Simple Superstar’ is “to make the common extraordinary.” And yet Benjamin is anything but a common Tamilian, with his Canadian background, and musical training in Cuba, New York and Los Angeles. There is something disingenuous about his conscious crafting of a camp persona that plays on well-known stereotypes. And as Sontag notes, “One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure Camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (“camping”) is usually less satisfying.” Wilbur’s “camping” is entertaining, but, when one learns of its artifice, one feels a bit cheated.
Perhaps, though, the (cross-cultural) ends justify the (campy) means. As a little-known Canadian musician trying to raise awareness about Rwanda, he attracted little attention – a few newspaper articles, a short TV segment. As an animated Tamilian, he has found millions of YouTube viewers and a devoted cult following. It’s possible that he is embracing these stereotypes, not to endorse them but instead to show their fundamental silliness. Whatever the case, Benjamin/Wilbur’s exuberance shines through the layers of irony and camp. He may not be simple or common, but with his genuine good cheer and curiosity, he deserved his superstar status.